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Posted under: News Politics

5 Times Black People Actually Received Reparations In America

A small number of Black folks have actually received their 40 acres and a mule -- or some iteration of it.

The Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, recently approved a plan that would make it the first U.S. city to pay reparations to Black Americans.

While reparations for slavery and subsequent racial discrimination against Black Americans has often been debated, federal, state and local governments have been resistant to the idea, and the issue remains controversial among the American population. Surprisingly, however, while Evanston will be the first instance of city-level reparations payments being distributed, it is not the first time that Black people have received reparations for slavery or other horrible instances of racism.

Here are five past examples from American history.


1. 40 acres and a mule – and self-government – temporarily granted in the South

Many of us are familiar with the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” a statement which has become a sort of shorthand for reparations payments. The phrase comes from an 1865 promise made by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, acting on behalf of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, to redistribute land seized from Confederates in the South to formerly enslaved people. The initial plan allocated plots of up to 40 acres of land per Black household; a later policy also allowed the newly-freed Black people to borrow government-owned mules to till the land. 

As Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes, the promise was developed in consultation with a number of leading Black ministers in the South. Two things are particularly noteworthy about the plan. First, it was actually even more radical than most of us remember. Not only did the plan cover 400,000 acres of land across Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, but it actually established this land as completely Black owned and Black governed. No white person was to hold office or even live in the designated territory, thus creating a completely autonomous Black community.

The second notable thing about the plan is that it was actually implemented. Forty thousand free Black people had taken up residence on the land allocated by Sherman. Unfortunately, after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, new President Andrew Johnson reversed the plan and returned the land to the white southerners from whom it had been seized, and many of the Black residents of the area were forced to become sharecroppers on the land they had owned for a few months.


2. Belinda Sutton and Henrietta Wood each won payment from their enslavers

At least twice in American history, Black women were legally granted financial compensation for having been enslaved. The first case happened in Massachusetts shortly after the American Revolution. As author Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts in his article “The Case for Reparations,” in 1783 a woman named Belinda Sutton, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to grant her a pension from the estate of her former enslaver’s estate. Belinda had been brought to the Massachusetts colony from Ghana 50 years earlier as a slave to the family of Isaac Royall, and gained her freedom when her enslaver sided with the British and fled the country after the Revolution. The new Massachusetts state legislature agreed to the request of Sutton, as she was eventually known, and awarded her “from the estate of the late Isaac Royall” a pension of “fifteen pounds [and] twelve shillings.”

Nearly a century later, in 1878, another extraordinary but soon forgotten legal victory occurred. An all-white Cincinnati jury awarded Henrietta Wood, by then “a spectacled negro woman, apparently sixty years old,” a sum of $2,500 to be paid by Zebulon Ward, the white man who had enslaved her. The particulars of Wood’s case were somewhat unique: she had been born into slavery around 1818, freed in 1848, but then kidnapped by Ward in 1853 on behalf of the daughter and son-in-law of her original enslaver. Years after gaining her freedom again after the Civil War, Wood eventually made her way back to Cincinnati and initiated a court case against Ward that would languish for years. Wood eventually won her judgement against Ward, a deputy sheriff who had grown rich by first kidnapping free Black people and enslaving them prior to the war and later by leasing convicts for labor.


3. Survivors of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment granted financial settlement and healthcare

The “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” has gone down in history as one of the country’s worst examples of medical racism. As part of the U.S. government-sponsored Tuskegee Experiment, nearly 400 Black men were misled about their health status and left untreated for syphilis so that doctors working through the Tuskegee Institute could observe the effects of the infection. Contrary to popular misconceptions, the men were not infected with syphilis through the study, but they were denied treatment, even though the infection could be easily cured with penicillin.

The experiment lasted for 40 years, and only ended in 1972 after an Associated Press story revealed the program publicly, although at least one Black whistleblower, Dr. William Jenkins, had been trying to reveal the study for years. Two years later, study survivors and their families received an out-of-court settlement. Among other stipulations, surviving study members with syphilis received per person payments of $37,500, while heirs of those who had already died got $15,000. Additionally, infected partners and offspring of study participants received lifetime medical benefits. Despite the compensation, the experiment remains a shameful moment in American history and continues to contribute to skepticism of the American healthcare system.


4. Group of mostly Black North Carolina women compensated for sterilization

During a similar time period as the Tuskegee Experiment – 1929 to 1974 – the state of North Carolina enacted a different but similarly horrible medical policy. In an example of state-sponsored eugenics, North Carolina sterilized nearly 7,600 residents who displayed mental illness, had physical disabilities, or were simply poor or unemployed. Most U.S. states adopted similar policies at some point in American history, but North Carolina’s was perhaps the most extensive. Most of the people sterilized through the policy were Black women; an outcome that a Duke University study concluded was an intentional policy to “breed out” unemployed Black people in the state.

In 2010, North Carolina established the Office of Justice for Sterilization Victims to redress the horrible policy that had been enacted for decades in the state. Between 2014 and 2018, each of the over 200 surviving victims identified by the state received a series of three compensation payments totaling about $45,000 each. The payments also covered the heirs of some victims of the policy, but only for those victims who were still alive in 2013 when the payments were approved.


5. Colleges pay the heirs of those enslaved by the schools

While much of the debate around reparations has focused on government action, many non-governmental organizations and institutions profited from slavery and have been called out for their slaveholding pasts. This includes a number of corporations as well as colleges and universities. Prestigious schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and the University of Virginia all profited or benefited from slavery or slave labor in their past. A number of them have been acknowledging their slave-related history and exploring ways to redress their pro-slavery legacies.

At least two schools have gone beyond exploring options to actually enacting compensation for their roles in slavery. Virginia Theological Seminary announced that it was setting aside nearly $2 million dollars to compensate descendants of people who were enslaved in service of the school. Meanwhile, after Georgetown University began giving admissions preference to descendants of 272 people who had been sold by the university in 1838, the student body went further. The school’s undergraduates voted overwhelmingly to charge themselves an additional fee of $27.20 per semester to go towards a fund to compensate the descendants of those 272 individuals.

Soon, more colleges and universities may have to provide compensation for their participation in slavery. In February, the Virginia House of Representatives passed a bill requiring five schools in the state to identify the descendants of people who were enslaved by the schools and to offer them academic scholarships. If enacted into law, the scholarship plan could go into effect as early as next year. Meanwhile, students at Brown University, dealing with revelations about the direct participation of the Brown family in the slave trade, just voted for the school to offer reparations in the form of community investment, recruitment and preferential treatment for descendants of slavery.

These examples of reparations have largely been exceptions to a general rule by which American institutions ignore or avoid the debilitating consequences of slavery in the country. Nevertheless, as widespread demands for racial justice and reparations, in particular, gain prominence and even mainstream acceptance, more efforts by governments and private entities may be enacted to redress the long and enduring legacies of American slavery.

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